This review was originally published 06/21/2010 on Game Observer (now defunct as of 05/13/2014). It has been republished here for archival purposes.
I originally tried to review this game in the shoes of an objective game critic instead of a Silent Hill fan. As such, I was far too generous to it. In the time since the game's release, my opinions of it have changed dramatically, and I'm a big enough boy to admit when I'm wrong. Thus, I will include updated commentary in areas of this review where my opinion has changed, and I will not disregard my fandom for the sake of mass appeal. :/
I’m a long-time fan of Silent Hill. I started with Silent Hill 2, which is my favorite console game to date, and eventually made my way through the first game all the way up to the PSP’s Origins and last year’s craptacular Homecoming. I was very bothered to hear that Konami had disbanded the team that had worked on the first four games after the mixed critical and fan reception of The Room, and gave the development to a new team. Developers Double Helix and Foundation 9 completely dropped the ball with Homecoming, but Climax did a passable job with the story of Origins (even though the gameplay mechanics weren’t all that great).
As you’re probably already aware, Shattered Memories is a re-imagining of the first Silent Hill game. It is NOT a port, nor is it a remake. Harry Mason gets in a car crash in the outer edge of the town of Silent Hill and wakes up to find his seven-year-old daughter, Cheryl, missing. He’ll proceed to explore the town of Silent Hill to find her, and along the way, meet several interesting characters including a police officer named Cybil Bennett. But the similarities end there.
You'll visit some vaguely familiar locations, but it's all superficial.
In Shattered Memories, you will visit new locations, solve different puzzles, and encounter characters that you have never seen in a Silent Hill game before. Even Dahlia is no longer an old cult leader, but rather a young, party-loving mistress of Harry (depending on your "psych profile"). If you’re concerned that this game is going to ruin Silent Hill, do not worry. Shattered Memories may stray from the occult-driven story of the first game, but it stays very spiritually and psychologically similar to the fan-favorite, Silent Hill 2, and manages to successfully combine the best elements of both those games, without suffering from the blatant plot rip-offs and uninspired attempts at "fan service" that plagued Double Helix’s Homecoming. The people at Climax clearly understand what a Silent Hill game is all about.
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Climax's efforts on Origins were pretty craptacular as well. The plot was a rip-off of Silent Hill 2, and the writers' interpretation of the first game's story was inconsistent with what was presented in that game.
Shattered Memories also rips off of Silent Hill 2's plot, as this game is also about a character having forgotten that a loved one is dead. This game also lacks the symbolism and depth in the writing that made Silent Hill 2 the gold-standard of both psychological horror and video game writing. So when I said that Shattered Memories "manages to successfully combine the best elements" of Silent Hill and Silent Hill 2, I was quite wrong.
Just one of many pieces of backstory that Silent Hill 2 presents.
This game is kind of disrespectful to its origins. The original games - like it or not - were very cult-driven. The entire overarching plot of the game as created by its original designers was about a cult trying to rebirth its god. Silent Hill 2 deviated from this plotline, but that game was still sprinkled with the influence of the cult story. That game provides back story details about the history of the town and subtle clues about the origin of the cult's god and the history of persecution, death, and corruption that tainted the god and made it malevolent. Shattered Memories completely refutes all of that and changes the game at fundamental levels.
So when I said that "the people at Climax clearly understand what a Silent Hill game is all about", I sort of misspoke [miss-wrote? miss-typed?...]. They clearly dont' know what the series is about because they threw out the entire canon and stripped out all of the plot elements that were common to the old games. They definitely understood the whole "lonely" aspect, but completely missed how to make a game subtly disturbing and creepy. What I meant was that Double Helix made Homecoming into a splatterhouse, American horror flick, and Climax at least knew better than to do that again. But hey, at least Double Helix kept the game about occultism, even if it completely shifted tones and lost its connection to real-world occultism. So I guess it's a wash?
On top of all that, the redesigned characters aren't particularly likeable. Harry Mason was depicted as a tremendously-loyal father and upstanding human being in the original game. So much so, that I wrote a Father's Day tribute to him a while back. In this new game, Harry may or may not have been a good dad or loyal husband. He also may or may not be a completely unlikeable, womanizing douchebag. None of the other characters are really relatable or sympathetic either. If you get an ending in which Harry is actually a good guy, then maybe you'll sympathize with Cheryl's loss, but it still doesn't compare to how we feel in the original game, in which the bond between the two is much better established.
Clever use of Wiimoting
The old Silent Hill game can essentially be described as a Resident Evil clone in gameplay terns. Although the games set the bar for psychologically horrifying story-telling and eerie atmosphere, they did nothing to truly innovate horror gameplay. Shattered Memories will no doubt leave a huge mark in horror gameplay for some of its riskily-innovative play mechanics. The awkward controls of the previous games have been removed in favor of simpler, but far more intuitive controls specifically designed to take advantage of the Wii’s unique (but limited) controls.
A flashlight and cell phone are Harry's only tools this time around, and both are used to solve puzzles that are typically fairly easy to solve.
Movement is mapped to the nunchuck and the flashlight is aimed with the Wiimote, which gives the player a much greater sense of exploration and "being there," even though most of the environments are enclosed and very linear. Harry can slowly crack doors open to peek into the room beyond before entering, and puzzles require the player to perform very believable and immersive gestures using the Wiimote ranging from turning dials by twisting the controller, to picking up containers and tipping them over to empty out their contents, and grabbing the handles of cupboards or drawers to pull or push them open. Gestures with the Wii are generally responsive and objects behave as you would expect. Also completely removed is combat. Harry is defenseless. His only tools are his flashlight and cell phone. And when the world freezes over into a nightmare state, Harry’s only recourse is to run for his life from the persistent pursuit of Creatures.
The removal of combat is a highly unorthodox move by Climax, but fits perfectly with the spirit of Silent Hill. Unlike Resident Evil and most other horror games, the characters of Silent Hill are not highly trained special ops agents or mercenaries (Homecoming, again, being the exception -- sorta). They are average people. And besides, the combat in Silent Hill games has always been clumsy and awkward anyway. When the Creatures catch up to Harry, they will lunge and grab him, scratching, clawing, and draining his health, as well as slowing him down, enabling more Creatures to pile on and drag him to the ground. When grabbed, the player can flinch the Wiimote and nunchuck in the direction the Creature is clinging onto Harry, and throw the Creature off. While running, Harry can also grab bookshelves or other large objects lining the corridors, and throw them to the ground in an attempt to slow down any pursuers. For a while, I had a very bad experience with it.
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Peeking through doors is an smart, but unnecessary mechanic.
Shattered Memories does, indeed, have excellent controls for a Wii game. The door-peeking mechanic was a novel and clever new mechanic that deserves a place in pretty much any would-be horror game. Unfortunately, this mechanic was horribly-implemented in this game. There are no threats outside of the Otherworld, and so cautiously opening doors is not necessary and only slows down the game. When you are in the Otherworld, you can know if an enemy is on the other side of the door by hovering the flashlight over it, so again, this mechanic is unnecessary. You also rarely want to slow down enough to be that cautious because a monster might catch up to you from behind.
The use of the Wiimote to solve puzzles with gestures means that puzzles have been reduced to child-like difficulty. The logic tests and thematic item-collection of the original games has been reduced to just dumping keys out of boxes and cans. These keys are always located in very close proximity to the door that they unlock, so you don't even have to search for them or think very hard about where the key might be. If you find a locked door, just search the room or the adjoining rooms until you find something that you can interact with - the key will be in there.
The horror will smack you in the face
I don’t play many games on the Wii, so I had a bit of trouble recognizing and interpreting the on-screen command prompts. I would frantically wave my arms around to try to throw the Creatures off, frequently whipping myself in the face with the nunchuck cord (which only added physical pain to my mental and emotional frustration), but eventually discovered, that a slower, more deliberate motion was required. Also, I would often swing the Wiimote to try to knock down bookshelves and would end up turning Harry around instead of throwing down the shelf. Eventually, I realized that only the nunchuck is supposed to be used to throw down the shelves, while the Wiimote can continue to point forward in the direction you are running. This mechanic does a great job of creating panic in the player and is a very frightening way of handling enemy encounters. They can be difficult and frustrating though, since the areas you have to navigate are mazes with multiple paths, and attempting to open the map on your phone will usually slow you down long enough for the Creatures to catch you.
Harry is also supposed to be able to hide from them, but in the entire game, I only noticed two places where I could hide, so they are hard to find, and require that the Creatures already be unable to see you (otherwise, they’ll just drag you out), and if you wait there too long, they’ll find you anyway. There are no health items to pick up, and your only defenses are very rare one-time use flares that cause the Creatures to cower in fear. So all of these encounters ended up being full sprints to the exit for me, and two of them towards the end of the game required that I look online for a map or written instructions on navigating the maze.
Don't bother hiding. It's just a waste of time, and they'll find you anyway.
However, once the nightmare ends, Harry is placed back in the normal world, which is COMPLETELY safe. Yes, Creatures only exist in the Nightmare realm. So you are free to explore Silent Hill to your heart’s content without worrying about a monster jumping through a window to take your head off. It’s kind of like the first-person perspective inside Henry Townshend’s Apartment room in Silent Hill 4, which you learn to assume is a safe place for most of the game. In this game, being completely safe when not in the Nightmare really takes away a lot of the tension. But not all of it, since the transformations into Nightmare realm can happen at any time, and anywhere. You never know if the Nightmare is waiting around the next corner, through the next door, or after the next cutscene, and the anticipation of those transformations does add some tension and fear back into the rest of the game.
Rather than Creatures, the Normal realm is inhabited by supernatural memories. But these are completely non-threatening, and are indicated by static through your phone and flickering of your flashlight, and require you to zoom in on an object in the game world. The memories only serve to provide an additional back-story and sub-plots. There are also ghosts that can be made completely visible by taking photos of them with the phone’s camera. But again, they are just static memories frozen into a location, and are completely non-threatening.
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After thinking about it for a while, I realized that I was never really afraid of the Otherworld in this game. It lacked the oppressiveness of the original games that made just being there feel threatening on an emotional level. Any fear that felt during Shattered Memories was really just a fear of having to play through the annoyingly frustrating chase sequences. These sequences aren't frightening in any sort of emotional or psychological sense; they are only frightening in a gameplay sense, and only because you cannot defend yourself. The monsters are bland and boring and are not scary at all. I complain about a lot of modern games that have frequent checkpoints that remove consequence from dying, but this game doesn't do anything to really address that concern. When you die, you restart the chase sequence, but since these are only about 5 minutes long anyway, it still isn't much loss.
This is not the Dahlia Gillespie that fans of the original game will remember!
Another radical departure for the genre is the fact that the entire game’s story is told from the point of view of the character describing the events to a psychiatrist. This psychiatrist will ask you questions during frequent intermissions that probe into your interpretations of guilt and innocence, your idealized family, and your sexual history. The game will take your responses to these questions and combine them with actions you perform in the game to alter the way in which the world looks. It will also influence your exact path through the town and how the characters you meet will look and act. The effect isn’t mind-blowing, but it does add a certain degree of replayability despite the fact that the majority of puzzles and overall story remain the same. At the end, the game will even evaluate you as a person, and I have to say, it did a very good job of describing my personality and psychology with only one or two exceptions.
Personally, I don’t like the simplistic puzzles of this game. In previous titles, the puzzles were complicated and nuanced, and required a lot of thought (and sometimes even research) to solve. Many were very abstract and required some out-of-the-box thinking (the Zodiac and piano puzzles from the first game, and the Shakespeare puzzle in the third game), and really made it seem like the whole town was against you -- that an intelligence was trying to block your path -- and gave you a real sense of achievement for solving them. In this game, most puzzles are located in the same room as the door they unlock, and are much more casual. Most puzzles require simply performing some gesture with the Wiimote to open a cupboard, slide a pin out to release a lock, or flip a can or bottle over to dump out a key hidden inside. It makes it seem like the whole town was populated with idiots who liked to hide their house key under the welcome mat, and doesn’t add any sense of antagonism like the previous games’ puzzles did. However, these simpler puzzles do have the benefit of keeping the game’s pacing consistent. So, from a design standpoint, they work very well.
The graphics and lighting engine gets some mixed reactions. The characters and environments are well detailed, but many textures seem a little fuzzy, and the characters just don’t look as believable as their PS2 predecessors. The flashlight does a good job of illuminating the darkness and casting shadows, but has some problems with shadows coming off of objects that are at Harry’s waist-level. The light often won’t illuminate the tops of tables or counters and will sometimes cast very long shadows off these objects that look very unnatural. Also, the camera is not particularly well-placed, as Harry will oftentimes stand right in the middle of the screen and block your view of where you’re going or what you’re trying to look at, and this can be especially devastating during the nightmare chase scenes as you will sometimes run right into a Creature that you never saw because once it got in range of your flashlight, Harry’s body blocked it from view.
Shattered Memories is also supposed to be the last Silent Hill game to feature music composed by series veteran Akira Yamaoka, who recently announced he was leaving Konami. But he does go out on a positive note, as the music for this game is up to his exceptionally high quality, and the sound design (aside from some irritating screeching from the Creatures and supernatural objects) is not far behind. So overall, the game looks and sounds good for a Wii title.
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The end-game's description of my personality did sound very much like a horroscope. I'm sure I would have gotten a description that reminded me of myself regardless of my actions during the game.
My original enjoyment of this game's soundtrack was based almost entirely on the 3 or 4 good songs on the CD. After listening to the CD through in its entirety and replaying the game, I realized that the soundtrack isn't really that good. It's very dull, doesn't add much emotional impact to the game, and seems very phoned-in. The vocal songs are very good, but they are also very pop-music-like (even moreso than SH3's "You're Not Here"), but those aren't in the game except for the end credits, and if they were in the game, they'd just mess things up. This soundtrack is on-par with Origins and Homecoming, but Akira definitely peaked with Silent Hill 2 and 3.
Harry and Cheryl aren't tourists anymore.
Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed the game, despite some minor complaints. I disagree with a few of the directions that the art team took, such as replacing the industrial look of the Dark realm with the iced-over freeze effect and the uninspired monster design, but the game did a more than satisfactory job of capturing the essence of what this franchise is all about. The re-written plot is creative, immersive, and creepy, and doesn’t suffer from the difficult-to-understand complexity of the other games’ occult-driven plots. And the game’s ending (without spoiling anything for you) is easily the best in the series since Silent Hill 2, and in fact, may be just as good as Silent Hill 2’s ending, despite being a little bit easier to see coming.
The only things keeping this game from getting a higher overall score is that I was under-impressed with its psych-profiling feature, noticed too many graphical issues, and didn’t care for the over-simplicity of the puzzles.
I highly recommend this game to any Silent Hill, horror, or Wii fan out there.
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I did, indeed, enjoy my first playthrough of the game. But then again, I also enjoyed Spider-Man 3 when I saw it the first time. The reason for this is that I went into both this game and that movie with very low expectations. I'm a big enough man to admit when I'm wrong, and in both cases, I was very wrong in liking this game. It's only barely competent on its own, and fails miserably as a "Silent Hill" game. At best, it's passable as a "what if?" side-story, but it honestly doesn't even try to fit in with the franchise's established canon.
If I had any expectation that Konami was going to follow this game's lead and take the franchise in this same direction from now on, then I'd probably be very offended. But since I think even Konami realizes that this isn't really a "Silent Hill" game (see Silent Hill Downpour for proof), it doesn't bother me as much. It can be enjoyed in the same way that one can enjoy fan fiction, because that's really what it is: official fan fiction.
In hindsight, I can't really recommend this game to fans of Silent Hill. It is, still, pretty good as a Wii game, and if you're looking for a diversion for a weekend and only have a Wii, Shattered Memories isn't a horrible way to pass the time. But if you have a PS2, then you'd be much better served to try to track down a copy of Silent Hill 1-3.